One of the great joys in my life is a friendship with raconteur, writer and scholar Ari Berk. While, he and his stories have always interested me and God knows, made me laugh, I admit to being surprised when he told me a couple of years ago that he was working on a novel about death. As a big deathomane myself, I was surprised to see this heretofore unseen propensity in my learned and funny friend, surprised that it was something he wanted to devote so much time to. And it is a lot of time, as the book is now an evolving trilogy.
Death is inherently fascinating. Mysterious and awe-ful, frightening and transcendent, repulsive and desired. Though we may sometimes long for death, what we long for a lot more often, are the dead. Where are they? How could they be gone? What is gone? Longfellow and Berk see other wheres for our dead, and most importantly, the connection between the living and the dead.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.
There are more guests at table, than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.
The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear…
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires…
And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,–
So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
Thoughts wandering amidst vital ethereal air above the dark abyss will naturally seek those we love. Religion likely started in response to these disappearances. In any case, it is a huge part of many religions and the essence of many.
In Ari’s book, he uses multifarious traditions of what happens to the dead as the basis of events in his story. He does this without comment. In a sense, it is a humble undertaking, as humility is the only correct relationship to understanding death. We don’t know. That’s all. We don’t know. The mind just balks and the heart suffers or opens or both.
When Steve Jobs said ‘Death is life’s greatest invention’, as I wrote about the other day, he was in the midst of discussing how clearing out the old makes way for the new. But as individuals, death both sharpens our will to live and to do, and humbles us. If we can accept it, or often even if we can’t, it opens our hearts. It creates the largest of ‘cracks where the light can get in.’